Raymond Carr

The greatest Briton

by John Ramsden
HarperCollins, £25, pp. 652, ISBN 002570343

In January 1965 John Lukacs came from France with his son to attend Churchill’s state funeral. He came, he writes in the contemporary account of his visit, reprinted in this book, in order to say ‘farewell to the spiritual father of many, including myself’. The many included those who queued in the cold to file past his coffin in Westminster Hall. Victory in 1945, they sensed, had been the achievement of the Russian and American armies. What they mourned was the man who restored their self-respect by saving them from the humiliation of defeat in 1940.

He accomplished this from a position of weakness. He knew that he had become prime minister on 10 May because Lord Halifax had refused the post. But Halifax continued as foreign minister and a powerful figure in the war cabinet. With the German army smashing through the demoralised French army, Halifax believed that it was conceivable that Hitler might offer terms that would, as John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, put it, ‘preserve our own [my italics] integrity and independence’. But as Halifax’s biographer, Andrew Roberts, acknowledges, ‘Churchill’s instinct proved correct’. Hitler’s terms would entail accepting his domination of Europe, and if refused, ‘a knockout blow’ would bring down Churchill, whom he regarded as a war- monger and a tool of Zionists.

In a confused struggle in the cabinet between 20 May and 28 May 1940 Churchill won out. On 29 June he issued to his ministers and civil servants a memorandum enjoining them to ‘support the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe [my italics] under his domination’. On 24 May Hitler had halted the advance of his tanks on the retreating British army.

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